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It's repeatedly asserted that excessive use of antibiotics does not pose any harm for humans.
By: Kate Delany of Robins Cloud LLP
Antibiotic resistance is a looming public health crisis, one that according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is “putting the achievements of modern medicine at risk.” The bacteria that causes illnesses such as foodborne disease, pneumonia, staph and tuberculosis are adapting to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), antibiotic resistant infections sicken 2 million people a year and kill at least 23,000. In addition to the threat of drug resistance, overuse of antibiotics results in higher medical bills, longer hospital stays and increased mortality, especially among infants, the elderly and those with chronic health concerns.
So how–and why–are people ingesting so many antibiotics? For some time now, physicians have been blamed for too readily doling out pills to insistent patients. Fault has also been assigned to parents who refuse to let their children’s viral infections run their course. The pharmaceutical industry has also been blamed for their increased advertising and the widespread availability of drugs. Patients who don’t finish their prescription or share medication have been noted as fueling the crisis.
While these parties all contribute to the growing problem, one culprit has often escaped adequate scrutiny–the meat and poultry industry, where factory farm animals routinely receive antibiotics in their water and feed. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. and half of all antibiotics worldwide are given not to humans but to pigs, cows and poultry. The animal agriculture industry uses antibiotics for three main reasons–to stimulate growth, to prevent illness and to treat it.
As Maryn McKenna notes in her book Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, feeding antibiotics to chickens converts “a skittish, active backyard bird into a fast-growing, slow-moving, docile block of protein, as muscle-bound and top-heavy as a bodybuilder in a kids’ cartoon.” The antibiotic powder available in bulk size bags helps animals bulk up, resulting in a more commercially appealing product.
For expanded coverage, read Robins Cloud's full article A Chicken (Full of Antibiotics) in Every Pot?
For insights into food safety, read Robins Cloud's blog Unsafe Foods.